The Fire Emblem series has seen a huge boost in popularity as of late, mostly due to Awakening’s sales. Less than a decade ago, fans often wondered how long they would have to wait for a new game. Now, they wonder how they can keep up with new titles coming within a short time period. While Fire Emblem hasn’t reached Pokémon level of success and content, there is no doubt it is becoming one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises.
However, some fans of “traditional” Fire Emblem games feel as though their beloved franchise is moving away from its roots. Instead of focusing on tactical RPG combat, newer editions focus more on pairing couples and making children. To these fans, new Fire Emblem games play more like a dating simulator rather than a war simulator. (Waifu Wars?)
Whether you agree with “traditional” fans or not, there’s no denying the difference between old Fire Emblem and modern Fire Emblem. I often wondered to myself, “Is there a happy medium?” Going into Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, I wasn’t sure; I wanted to know if the present could learn from the past.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Simple, Yet Enjoyable
Fire Emblem Echoes’ overall theme is simplicity. Simplicity in everything from gameplay to story to interface. The remake of the Japan-only Fire Emblem Gaiden takes the normal conventions of the series and breaks them. Funny, since Gaiden is actually the second game in the series. Normally, the rock-paper-scissors theme of the weapon triangle takes full command in how you play, but not in Echoes. With the absence of Fire Emblem’s main mechanic, fighting becomes simple but still enjoyable. In a sense, it’s liberating and gives more freedom to how you might play.
However, simplicity, in this case, does not always translate to easy or bland; more like refreshing. The story for Fire Emblem Echoes is a great example of this. While not the deepest story Intelligent Systems has created, the simple story of two kingdoms at war with love prevailing, in the end, proved to be enjoyable. The plot moved at a nice pace, revealing a few, sometimes obvious, mysteries and surprises along the way. It was a nice break from a headache I got after trying to figure out Awakening and Fates’ rather complicated plot.
Aside from gameplay and story, Fire Emblem Echoes’ overall look takes a simple and intuitive turn, all without holding your hand. The game quickly explains its core gameplay in the beginning and then lets the player figure out the rest. To old fans of Fire Emblem, this is a welcome change. Even new players can figure out the game relatively easily without feeling completely lost.
Old School Nail-Biting Difficulty
In no way is Fire Emblem Echoes a cakewalk in regards to difficulty. Once you reach the game’s third act, the difficulty shoots up tremendously because of the number of enemies and the challenging map designs. There were many times where enemy units almost destroyed my entire party, because of my poor planning. The challenge makes Echoes that much more fun. Oh, and I play in easy/casual mode, so take that as you will.
Luckily, the developers introduced a new mechanic to tackle the overall difficulty, called Mila’s Turnwheel. This in-game item allows you to turn back time to a previous turn, erasing everything that happened up to that point. This crucial mechanic allowed me to continue my playthrough without resetting. Fixing little mistakes at the press of a button encouraged me to experiment further, creating a more enjoyable experience. I wish with all my heart that Mila’s Turnwheel makes it’s way back in future titles in one form or another.
The reset-like mechanic is incredibly useful in one of Fire Emblem Echoes’ returning features: Dungeon Crawling. First seen in the Gaiden original, dungeons offer a nice mix of difficulty and breaks from the monotony that plagues previous titles; although, it’s not perfect. While Echoes is a remake, the overall lack of interesting design left more to be desired. Most battles feel repetitive and annoying, rather than fun and challenging. Stronger themes would easily make the dungeons stand out from each other.
Rich Characters Without Partnering
Modern Fire Emblem games suffer from a lack of deep characters. You meet a new character, talk with them for a couple lines, and that’s it. Unless you marry them off to another character, you won’t see these characters again. And for me, I found it hard to care about a lot of them. Not so with Echoes.
In Echoes, I fell in love with the comradery of Alm’s and Celica’s teams. Most every character you pick up brings something to the main or subplot. And, without the marriage system, these characters grow on a relatable level. Friendships grow, love blooms, and people change. It feels more controlled and progressive, rather than random and static.
Of course, the biggest reason why I find these characters so compelling is the voice acting. Never in any game have I been moved by the dialogue and voice direction as much as this one (sorry, Dragon Quest VIII). Characters like Clair, Mae, Boey, Gray, Berkut, Tobin, and Mathilda stand out as real people with passions and heartaches. You feel for them, cry for them, and cheer them on. On top of all that, the game is entirely voice acted, aside from a few villager lines. The connection is that much stronger because of it.
New Style for an Old Game
Along with changes to the Fire Emblem formula, Echoes shows off a new art style, setting in stone how different it is from other recent titles. For the most part, the art is gorgeous. However, visuals are easily the weakest part of the game. While it contains some fully animated cutscenes, something feels off about the look. The art style looks better in 2D art rather than 3D animation.
The same cannot be said for the music. The game’s score truly hits its mark and holds up to others in the series. As each act progresses, the map theme changes until it reaches a final climatic song, fully engaging the player in the moment.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia proves the present can learn from the past; in fact, it needs to. The refreshing take on the franchise shows how deep Fire Emblem can grow without throwing away its roots. I don’t expect Intelligent Systems to make Echoes the new template for future games, but it is a refreshing take on not only Gaiden but modern Fire Emblem as a whole.